Final word on the Damian McBride issue. Michael Brown, the Independent journalist and former Tory MP said on the World Tonight this week that in 1993 when he was in the then government whips’ office he had a discussion with the Tory MP Giles Brandreath about smearing Gordon Brown.
They had heard rumours that the then shadow chancellor was gay and thought they should maybe spread the word around a bit. After the conversation they dropped the idea as unethical and probably counterproductive. Michael Brown is himself gay and it may seem odd to us today to think that there is anything objectionable about being homosexual. But things were different back in 1993. Actually rumours of a sexual nature followed the Chancellor throughout the 1990s – they were completely false, but kept being recylced.
The point about this is that it is quite difficult to say that this action of discussing a smear in the government whips office is any different in principle to discussing it in an email. After all, the McBride-Draper exchange was never intended for publication. It was supposed to be a private discussion between friends. If it had remained that way would their actions have been unacceptable? You could argue that a discussion in the whips office is more serious than an exchange of emails.
Indeed, should the Conservative Party apologise for the fact that senior government figures – whips Brown and Brandreath – contemplated smearing Gordon Brown? Of course a lot of time has passed, and there is no record of the discussion – except now that it is now on BBC Iplayer for Tuesday 15th April 2009. You can go and listen to it.
I’m not trying to defend Damian McBride here, who has behaved badly. He clearly intended his scribblings to be considered for publication in the proposed Draper/Labour blog, Red Rag. His smears of Tory MPs were more numerous and more objectionable than the smear proposed by the Tories sixteen years ago.
Nevertheless, something about this whole affair has left me feeling distinctly queasy. If private conversations are no longer private; if every off key or dodgy remark is actionable; if every piece of gossip is considered defamatory, whether it is published or not, then we are altering the rules of private and personal conduct pretty massively.
Of course, McBride should have remembered the first rule of the internet: never put in an email anything you wouldn’t write on a postcard. But I wonder now if someone had overheard him speak in a derogatory way about opposition MPs, or had heard him recycle lobby gossip – for that was what he was doing, many people had heard these rumours – would he have had to resign then?
This penetration of the personal leads to the worrying possibility that any disaffected employee of any organisation could severely damage a fellow employee by revealing the content of private conversations. Say a newspaper editor discussed the chancellor’s sex life during an editorial conference or told a story he or she had heard about an MP being caught with their trousers down. The remarks may not have been intended for publication, but the mere mention of them in a context in which they could theoretically find their way into printcould presumably now be actionable.
Certainly, it would be a great way to get rid of an editor you didn’t like. Or a political rival. Careless talk costs jobs.